The mental health benefits of sniff walks

Article by Emma Milby

Emma is a dog mum of one to Winston and fell into doggy science accidentally, trying to manage Winston’s allergies. She is passionate about educating pet parents and problem-solving canine issues.

Have you ever noticed that sometimes your pooch wants a good run around, to play with the ball or frisbee, then at other times is engrossed in sniffing?

Both activities are equally crucial for doggy mental health as they stimulate the brain. Like us, dogs get bored and can suffer from anxiety and depression when they have nothing to do. Here we’ll look at the benefits of adding scheduled sniff walks and activities into your dog’s routine but first, the science!

Smell-O-Vision

Weimaraner dog sniffing the air

Dogs perceive the world predominantly through smell and have over 300 million olfactory receptors tucked away. These receptors receive scent molecules through inhalation, sending messages from the receptors to the brain where the scent will be analysed.  

A dog’s brain is approximately ten times smaller than a human’s but the area of their brain that deals with olfactory stimulation is forty time more extensive than ours! That makes some breeds ideal for demanding jobs, such as tracker dogs, cadaver dogs, drug-detecting dogs, and bomb-detecting dogs. There are even dogs that detect low blood sugar and some cancers.

My dog can smell the good cheese through closed doors, he snuffles through jacket pockets to find biscuits and steals stinky socks out my washing basket. He also rolled on a dead frog recently and was very happy about it (I wasn’t).

Even so, it takes time and effort for dogs to process scents. You may be out on a walk together and he decides to sniff around a particular spot for what feels like an eternity! The dog, however, will be immersed in the smells, processing the information. Some dogs don’t respond to their owners when consumed by a smell and may even chase the scent if it’s a breed with a high prey drive. This is normal and healthy for dogs, so it’s important to factor in sniff walks to aid doggy mental health and manage behaviours.

The good news is that sniff walks are easy to organise. All you need is a little free time. In fact, the more time you can block out the better. Not feeling as though you have to rush home means that you and your dog can relax and enjoy a different type of walk. 

I tend to wear headphones and listen to music or a podcast, which stimulates my brain while my dog stimulates his.

Happy hormones

Happy dog running towards camera

A canine endocrine system is almost identical to that of humans. We both have pituitary glands and thyroid glands and are susceptible to stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol.

Dopamine, known as the pleasure hormone, is also found in dogs. It works as a neurotransmitter relaying messages to other neurones in the brain. Dopamine is essential as it regulates several biological processes such as mood and ability to learn.

When a dog follows a scent or makes multiple stops on a walk to sniff something interesting, they release dopamine. Releasing dopamine in this way helps regulate stress, boosts memory making, and improves behaviour.

Another hormone that humans and dogs share is oxytocin, also called the love hormone. When we make eye contact with our dogs it releases oxytocin in their brains. Make eye contact along the course of your sniff walk and it’ll help solidify your relationship.

Bring them both together by training your dog to sniff freely –– off the lead is ideal, if you’re able –– then come back to check in with you. Not only will is that highly beneficial for improving recall but the eye contact is great for bonding.

Rainy day nose work

Dog sniffing mat

Not every day is ideal for a sniff walk, though. On days where work overwhelms us or the weather is just too bad, a snuffle mat is an excellent tool for stimulating your dog.

Snuffle mats are low cost, easy to put together, and enjoyed by puppers! They provide an easy to clean way to hide small treats, such as cucumber, carrot, and dog biscuits. Simply chuck them into the snuffle mat, place the mat on the floor, and watch that nose work! This is a tremendous stimulatory exercise that can give your dog some of that all important nose work on those occasions when getting out just isn’t possible.

Sniffing, processing and identifying scents is the doggy equivalent of brain training. It is rewarding for them biologically and psychologically. And it gives you the reassurance that their needs are being met.

Are there any fragrances that are bad for dogs?

Not everything that your dog wants to sniff is good for them. Pure tea tree oil, for example, is toxic to dogs. In fact, essential oils in general are best avoided around dogs.

If you plan to have essential oils in your house, make sure they’re well away from your dogs. To be safe, check with your vet as to which oils are safe.

Dogs live by their noses

Implementing a mixture of sniff walks, snuffle mats, exercise/play, and training will keep your dog focussed. When dogs are stimulated in different ways, they tend to misbehave far less. And if your dog has issues with mental health, such as self-injurious behaviour, you should see improvements there, too.

Making time for sniff walks will enrich your dog’s life by giving them the freedom to explore and be curious about their environment. And getting out and about is good for you, too!

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